ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial

Editor’s Note: Cynics and the FAA’s ATO

By David Jensen   | April 1, 2001
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Former President Clinton’s Dec. 7, 2000 executive order to establish a performance-based air traffic control (ATC) entity, called the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), has drawn its share of cynicism. The order "sounds like another proposal that will be ignored by the next administration and Congress," chided Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, in a Wall Street Journal article. I recently overheard an industry official say, "The FAA has reorganized itself 50 times, and little has actually changed." Admittedly, I relayed cynical comments in my February 2001 column (page 4), as well.

Well, we now have the "next administration and Congress," and there appears to be little doubt that the ATO will proceed. In fact, the new Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta strongly recommended the ATO as far back as 1997, when he was chairman of the independent National Civil Aviation Review Commission. In his confirmation hearing in January before the Senate–virtually a "rubber stamp" review–Mineta stated that ATC and safety standards and certification should be separate FAA functions. Obviously, the Bush administration won’t impede progress toward an ATO.

Nor will lack of funding. Enabling ATO’s establishment is the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), a multibillion-dollar effort to modernize ATC in the United States. Despite the momentary glitch delivered by the Office of Management and Budget, AIR-21 passed in full.

So now the FAA can proceed with its performance-based initiative. And, according to Charles Huettner, of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, despite past FAA attempts to reorganize, "this is a real opportunity for fundamental change."

The establishment of an ATO can advance the FAA "that is ‘stove-piped’ to a systems approach," Huettner adds. "The FAA is now asked to overview [not manage and operate] ATC. That’s never been done before [and] it offers the opportunity to really plan for the future."

Still, challenges exist to establishing the ATO. Much debate will precede the change, and many questions must first be answered.

At an Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) symposium earlier this year, Huettner outlined the presidential order and also posed some questions that he suspected the executive order would elicit. For example:

  • The ATO’s chief operating officer (COO) will develop a five-year strategic plan for ATC, which is consistent with long-term FAA strategies for the aviation system as a whole. But who will develop the long-term strategy? How will the aviation community be involved? And how should the ATO be tasked to change as needs and technologies change?

  • The ATO will "operate in accordance with safety performance standards developed by the FAA." But what are the standards?

  • The ATO’s COO "shall enter into a framework agreement with the Administrator that will establish a relationship of the ATO with other FAA organizations. But what are these other organizations? And how should the ATO relate?

Perhaps the biggest question (as this is written) is who will be the COO, and will this person come with enough resolve to make tough organizational decisions while facing more than 40 unions and an entrenched bureaucracy?

Huettner admits his questions largely must be answered within the FAA, i.e. it’s basically an internal matter. But it would be a mistake for the aviation industry not to become involved in what could be a far-reaching initiative. The FAA can use all the help and input it can get.

Right now, industry input is accomplished formally through the 15-member Aviation Management Advisory Committee. The committee, which includes members of the aviation community, is to provide oversight to the ATO and its ATC subcommittee, whose five-person membership also includes industry officials.

I suspect industry will provide plenty of input informally, as well–through, for example, symposia such as ATCA’s.

And well it should. "More than the ATO is at stake here," Huettner told me.

Real change, therefore, requires that the aviation industry provide input to help resolve the many questions that the executive order poses, and encouragement for the ATO’s first COO as he or she makes difficult decisions. Change can then be fundamental, positive and keep the cynicism at bay.

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